The late Neil Postman wrote a brilliant book titles Amusing ourselves to Death about the deleterious cultural effects of television. The author maintained that television was an intrinsically trivialising medium, that it made shallow whatever it touched, dissolving utterly the distinction between the important and the unimportant. Whether or not his thesis is true, whether or not a non-trivialising TV channel could be envisaged and, if envisaged, whether or not it could survive, I am not certain; but it is true that, as television now exists, it seems to bear out what Postman said.
I saw an instance recently that would not have surprised him, and indeed that he might have used were he revising his book. It was a picture in a newspaper of a number of South Koreans watching a large flat-screened television in a shop as the former second-in-command in North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, is led away to his execution by firing squad a few moments later.
In the right-hand corner of the screen was an advertisement for a type of mobile telephone. Now my sympathy for Kim’s uncle is distinctly limited because one does not become number two in a regime such as North Korea’s (in fact, there is no regime such as North Korea’s other than North Korea itself) by being a nice chap. At his ‘trial’ he was accused of being human scum and worse than a dog, not the kind of language that one would normally associate with a court of law, but indicative of the kind of jurisprudence prevailing in the country of which he was for so long an leading organiser.
Nevertheless the last moments of a man about to be executed on the orders of other men every bit as bad as he do not seem to me to be a proper occasion for advertising what you want to sell. The juxtaposition is all the more extraordinary because the shop window in question and its television screen were in artillery-distance of the huge army that the executors of Jang Song-taek control, not to mention the nuclear weapons of which they dispose and are probably mad enough to use.
We are astonished at the insensitivity of the Georgians and early Victorians in turning public executions into festive occasions: but at least they had the courage of their insensitivity. We, on the other hand, notice nothing about ourselves. A man is killed; a phone is advertised. It is all one to us.